Great Lake Swimmers play up their rustic charm on The Legion Sessions, a live album that features many of the songs from their 2010 offering Lost Channels. Recorded at the Royal Canadian Legion Pub (apparently a northern hot spot of some renown), and the songs invoke the friendliness and familiarity of a tight-knit artistic community. Picture a show where the band is playing for an audience of friends and everyone is buying each other whiskey drinks. There is perhaps no setting more ideal for hearing these songs, but they’re not bad secondhand, either.
The material is intimate and friendly by nature, thanks to the pitch-perfect croon of lead singer Tony Dekker and some skilled banjo picking by Erik Arnesen. Great Lake Swimmers are a well-oiled machine, and they have a certain chemistry that only comes from playing together often and enjoying it. With a signature mix of clever, poignant lyrics and folksiness, Dekker and friends bring everything that was good about the original songs to Sessions—and unfortunately, this is the album’s weakness.
The live versions don’t offer much that the originals didn’t already have. A live album gives the listener the opportunity to experience a show they couldn’t be at in person, for whatever reason: space, time, pet emergencies. The songs are in a different order, but there is no greater sense of energy or excitement, and the audience isn’t present at all. Where’s the applause? Where’s the witty banter between songs or the shouted requests? The problem is not the material; it’s the way it’s presented. Songs like “The Chorus in the Underground” sound a little softer, a little less like they were recorded in a studio, but ultimately not that different.
Great Lake Swimmers are a talented group that are doing something worthwhile: making folk music fresh and new and bringing it to a wide audience. But Sessions ultimately disappoints because it contradicts this; it’s too set in its ways to let itself be a novel experience.
Essential Tracks: “The Chorus in the Underground” and “Stealing Tomorrow”